E Pluribus Region?

Region, fact or fiction?
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It is often said that “a new era is at hand.” On an individual level, new eras can present themselves whenever a person chooses to see and act in the world in a different way. For a nation, new eras are harder to come by, though with every federal election, such is promised. But what about a region? And, specifically, what about our region?


Before answering, let’s consider what our region is and whether it really exists in any practical way. The federal government calls our region the seven-​county metropolitan statistical area: Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties. Our project — the Pittsburgh Regional Indicators — expands the definition to 22 counties. And a “regional visioning project” called The Power of 32 expands the number to 32.

For the average person, though, such definitions seem purely theoretical. You may live in South Fayette, and I in Greensburg. What points of reference do we really share? Not our pharmacies, gas stations or favorite restaurants. Not our circle of friends, our commuting routines or our local schools.

So, while economic development boosters have been pushing the idea for 15 years that we should think and act as a region, are they really right? Does the idea of Pittsburgh really extend beyond the city limits? What do we really have in common?

Leaping to mind first are our pro sports teams. When the game is on the line, we’re all Pittsburghers, whether we live in Beaver Falls, Kittanning or Morgantown. Sports psychologists say this bond is more important than the simple brief diversion that watching games provides. When the Steelers dominate in the playoffs or lose a heartbreaker, we feel elated or depressed for significant reasons. They boil down to the fact, these experts say, that like villages or city-​states in history, our teams are proxies for our collective psychic and military success.

Twisting the military metaphor in a darker way, we also are regionally aligned in this era of terrorism. How well our protectors do their jobs — whether in security at the airport or at our hospitals in their preparedness for bioterrorism — is another way that unites us, though hopefully one that remains unfelt.

Let’s get more “down to earth.” Though we live in different municipalities, attend different places of worship and belong to different clubs, when we travel, we generally identify ourselves as being from Pittsburgh. We do this because, in a global perspective, we live in the same place, sharing the same snowstorms, droughts and tornado warnings. We call the same hills and rivers home.If language is the root of culture, we’re undeniably distinct here too. Even if transplants only use the word “yinz” in jest, in time we all fall into similar speech patterns with regional idioms and usage.

But our culture is different beyond regional dialect. Whatever one thinks of the local news media, over 25 years here it’s my judgment that the Pittsburgh media follow a regional pattern as well. They generally adhere more closely than other places to what might be called “decency.” There are fewer media feeding frenzies here, and generally more awareness of what is a fair way to treat people and their reputations. Whether they’d admit it or not, newcomers to the working Pittsburgh media learn this quickly from their editors.

And that extends to our business dealings as well. We are less likely than counterparts in other large regions to, for instance, order goods from a supplier, knowing that we are on the verge of insolvency and may be unable to pay. In that regard, we don’t simply “Just do it.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it’s part of our cultural character to behave more ethically toward others. Some may say we’re simply more conservative or risk-​averse, but whatever the label, you can see a glimpse of it in figures 1 and 2, which compare regions in bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Finally, consider burglaries (figure 3). A leading local criminal expert once told me that our comparatively low crime rates are due to the fact that we have a more intact social fabric. For example, a potential criminal in Pittsburgh is less likely to commit that crime because of the opprobrium he would face: “What would Aunt Sarah and Uncle Jim think of me?”

We are not anonymous big-​city dwellers. Our actions here have repercussions. Some of these social strictures are probably tighter here because we haven’t had the influx of new residents to the degree other regions have. Those who do come, in time, learn the region’s ways and become “one of us.” These are all broad brush strokes to be sure, and for some readers, they might portray a suffocating place to live, where one’s every move is watched. For most, however, I suspect the description rings true and ultimately reflects the reasons why, whether we were born here or came expecting to stay a short while, we remain and consider ourselves Pittsburghers, despite the greatest prospects for mobility in the history of the world.

So, if only for the sake of argument, you’re willing to grant that we do have similarities of situation, outlook and culture, what of it? Where does it lead, and what does it matter?

The simplest answer is that it matters because our futures are to a degree tied together as long as we call “Pittsburgh” home. The biggest effect on any regional economy is the national economy. But beyond that, what we do here — the decisions we make, the excellence we envision and realize, the jobs we create and keep — all of this matters a great deal to our collective and individual prosperity. But it goes beyond that as well. To the degree that we are able to build not only a thriving economy but also a place of excellence in education, medical care, and environment — and a place where the least among us has a fair chance — to this extent, we increase our chances, collectively and as individuals, to lead happy lives.

It was likely no accident that my predecessor in this project, the late John G. Craig Jr., referred to this region as “The city-​state of Pittsburgh.” The phrase has a classical ring that predates our current era, going back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that wealth was not the measure of happiness. To the contrary, while some wealth helped, the key ingredients of happiness were character, family, some luck and one’s contribution to his city and culture.

This project, the Pittsburgh Regional Indicators, attempts to further this regional improvement and progress by showing where we are and how we are doing. What are our strengths and where do we need to improve? If we know this, then we can make better decisions and create a better future. A broad statistical measure of where we stand compared to other regions can be found on our Web site, pitts​burghto​day​.org. But statistics are only part of this project and what it is becoming.

And that leads us back to the beginning. We believe that a new era is at hand for the Pittsburgh region. If we recognize this and act on it, we are on the verge of a great transition to new possibilities and challenges. This new era will be the subject a major regional report that will appear in these pages and other places in February. Please stay tuned.


Douglas Heuck

A journalistic innovator, Heuck has been writing about Pittsburgh for 25 years, as an investigative reporter and business editor at The Pittsburgh Press and Post-​Gazette and as the founder of Pittsburgh Quarterly. His newspaper projects ranged from living on the streets disguised as a homeless man to penning the only comprehensive profile in the latter years of polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk to creating a statistical means of judging regional progress that has led to similar projects across the country. Heuck’s work has won numerous national, state and local writing awards. His work has been cited in the landmark media law case “Food Lion vs. ABC news.”

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